Staunton, November 25 – Vladimir Putin won support from Russians who had lost confidence and self-respect because of the turmoil of the 1990s by offering them in compensation his efforts to return their country to the status of a great power, sociologist Lev Gudkov and psychologist Leonid Gozman say.
The two made these points during a wide-ranging discussion at Moscow’s Sakharov Center on “The Psychology of the Putin System – Love, Fear and Illusions” (rosbalt.ru/moscow/2020/11/25/1874829.html).
Gudkov, head of the Levada Center polling agency, said that even before Putin came to power, “polls showed that Russians expected two things from a new leader: an exit from the economic crisis and the return to Russia of the status of a great power. People did not have other expectations beyond a return to empire.”
In the years since, he continued, there have been “three stable types” of popular attitudes toward Putin and his team: “37 percent are supporters of the president, about 10 percent are his opponents, and an absolutely indifferent majority.” But he suggests that the president’s support is beginning to slip as Russians see he has not delivered on his promises.
Putin once acknowledged, Gudkov noted, that “the president must be what the people wants to see in him. But this doesn’t explain why people want to invest in him such qualities.” That pattern reflects the fact that Russians lost their sense of self-respect; and at least initially, Putin provided a compensation for this loss.
In Soviet times, the sociologist continued, “government institutions suppressed individuality and gave rise to a weak ‘ego,’ one dependent on the all-powerful nature of the state which provides their well-being. Even after the collapse of the USSR, a different picture of the world, one based on self-respect, did not appear.”
“Nothing besides soviet stereotypes has been developed,” Gudkov said. “The individual was deprived of value and he understood this. He needed respect, but he could achieve that only by the demonstration of national power.” And that is exactly what Putin offered, allowing Russians to regain a kind of self-respect by investing in him.
According to Gudkov, “Putin placed his bet not on the creation of institutions which would give each individual the chance to feel his own dignity and self-confidence.” Instead, he acted in ways so that Russians would acquire these things “only via victories, military force, and the size of their territory.”
“And with time, the greater the role of military might has become,” and the more Putin’s rhetoric has reflected and exacerbated this reality. Related to this, Gudkov said, is the fact that “people only want to be proud of their country; they do not want to be responsible for its crimes in the past.” Putin has fully met that need as well.
“Btu complexes remain, and the sense of shame now is just as strong as that of pride. The formula – ‘we’re a great people but we live in poverty’ – reflects this.” Displays of force reduce this, but to be effective, they must be repeated ever more often. But these do nothing to mitigate the continuing sense of hopelessness in the population.
Russians are increasingly critical, but they are “forced to support the regime and subordinate themselves to this pressure because they do not have any other bases for collective respect. The regime is based on this, on the absence of a sense of the dignity” of its individual members, Gudkov concluded.
Gozman, an opposition politician who was trained as a psychologist agreed. He said that Putin has offered three things to rebuild the national self-respect of Russians: enemies they can collectively hate, a spiritual supremacy over everyone else, and the annexation of Crimea. The last was especially important because it showed Russia could do what it wanted no matter what.
But he continued, “the self-assessment of Russians is based on an illusory world. Society has landed in the position of a drug addict who cannot cope with reality and escapes it with new doses, or of a neurotic individual who also in an attempt to flee reality creates an illusory world where he is the tsar.”
Putin played to that successfully, but with the coronavirus and his retreat to the bunker, he has lost much of his former attractiveness in this regard. “People see all this and their attitude to him is changing. They are disappointed,” Gozman continued.
He suggested that society is not the only component in the Putin system that is undergoing changes. The powers that be are also changing, and they are increasingly disappointed in the people. Earlier when they had resources, they could play the philanthropist; but now they resent the demands of the population.
The powers that be are thus retreating from reality as well. They want only displays which appear to show that they retain the respect and fear of the Russian people, he said. The Putin regime is not going to last forever, but unless these attitudes change, the country is going to be in trouble for a long time after he goes.